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Doughnuts, Darwin and desire

By Aarron Toal PhD candidate - October 2020

The UK government has recently introduced a ban on junk food advertising both online and on TV prior to the 9pm watershed. In-store, ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods are also banned, and there are restrictions on where foods high in fat, salt and sugar can be promoted, such as those chocolate bars or sweets you sneakily add to your shopping basket at the checkouts. Described as a ‘ticking time-bomb’ with an ever-expanding percentage of the population becoming overweight or obese, coupled with the complications of Covid-19, the health of the nation has never been taken so seriously.

But where does the craving for a doughnut or juicy cheeseburger come from? How are fast- food brands able to so successfully make their tasty and high calorific foods so exceedingly irresistible? And what new perspectives must social marketers consider when designing such an intervention strategy?

Baked-in desire

Evolutionary psychology offers an alternative approach to understanding and interpreting consumer behavioural phenomena. Generally, psychologists seek explanations by investigating the relative immediate triggers of a behaviour. These proximate explanations help establish a causality, leading to a description of how something works and what factors affect its workings in a particular setting. Those committed to flying the Darwinian flag are interested in those behaviours that transcend socio-cultural boundaries to provide explanations that address why, such as why has a behavioural trait come to exist in a particular form, by identifying the relative different evolutionary pressures that shaped it.

The instinctual behavioural traits we possess today are not suited to our modern, resourceful, overabundant world, but instead evolved within a harsh environment inhabited by our hunter- gatherer ancestors that was fraught with danger and challenges, namely the scarcity of food. Viewed in this perspective, our innate cravings today for energy-rich foods make perfect sense as an evolved adaptive behavioural trait within the brain, albeit a maladaptive one.

So the question ‘why did I just purchase a doughnut?’ can be answered from a proximate perspective (‘I bought a doughnut because I was hungry’), but the ultimate cause which takes into account the adaptive nature of the behaviour would say ‘I bought a doughnut because of an evolutionary desire shared with our ancestors who craved sugary and fatty foods in an environment that was scarce of both to ensure the continued survival of the individual and the species’.

For the love of junk food

A whopping 60% of all food advertisements shown between 6pm and 9pm are of the junk kind. Watching food adverts increases the potential for faster, more impulsive food decisions, making the marketing message even more persuasive. Most of these ads don’t even contain any new information but are designed to remind us to impulsively reach for that burger the next time we’re hungry. This impulsivity can be explained through the ultimate cause of the behaviour. The one thing that fast- food brands provide is fatty foods fast, and the reason they’re so successful? They appeal to our evolved food preferences for high calorific foods from a time of scarcity.

So will removing all temptation from screens and shelves have the desired effect of reconditioning our innate desires, reducing the waistline and getting us healthy? Well, viewed from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps not.

Social messages, from a policy perspective, often attempt to explain consumer irrationality as a result of possessing incomplete or incorrect information. However, it is rarely enough to consider the mind as a blank slate, where irrationality is explained through the incomplete possession of information, or where all available information processed takes the form of only what has been learned or experienced. Instead, a more biological explanation would assume that the mind is born with instincts and ideas. Any social marketing message that does not take into account the biological roots of consumption is likely to lead to suboptimal results.

Evolving a sweet tooth

For example, the often-associated belief is that exposure to fast-food advertisements causes obesity, so therefore regulations on advertising content will address this behaviour. However, from an evolutionary perspective, this may not be the case. While addressing a proximate causality, this approach does not consider the biological (or ultimate causes) of the behaviour, being the evolutionary desire for sugary or fatty foods that existed long before the marvel of advertising.

Policymakers have the arduous responsibility of implementing intervention strategies to protect citizens’ wellbeing, but this cannot be fully achieved if the unconscious biases shaped from biology are disregarded. Ultimately, possessing a deeper understanding of consumer desires and ways to influence them requires acknowledging their Darwinian roots of how they came to be.

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